One of the nation's leading non-profits for spoken word education and youth development is taking its unique prescription for social change to the web.
Youth Speaks, in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), officially launched the Off/Page project on Wednesday, providing "a multimedia platform for young people to investigate the issues and stories that would otherwise be silenced." The aim is to spark a conversation among its national network of youth poets on the issues that most impact them in their communities. Taking place both online and in real life, the project is a groundbreaking blend of slam poetry, multimedia storytelling and investigative reporting.
'Good Kid, Broken City'
To accomplish its goal, the Bay Area-based Off/Page project is casting a wide, new media-powered net. Wednesday's kick-off coincided with YouthSpeaks' annual slam poetry competition and included a trailer (embedded above) for Good Kid, Broken City, a forthcoming documentary that grew out of the project.
The kick-off also included the release of the organization's first video poem as well as an online opportunity for poets nationwide to identify an issue that's "most underreported" in their communities and they'd like to see addressed in future projects.
It's a collaboration that will hinge, in many ways, on the digital tools with which teens are already familiar. As the effort progresses, José Vadi, project director for Off/Page, envisions teens submitting poems via Instagram video and Vine, with the Off/Page website as a platform for their stories to be disseminated.
But, Vadi says, "we're not just asking them to upload videos and Instagram. We'll be in their communities, asking them to tell their stories. It's the best of both worlds. We're not only in the field, we have a digital playing field to tell our stories and share them across the board."
Off/Page is already experimenting with this approach on the ground. Reporters from the CIR headed to Stockton, Calif., over many months to facilitate workshops with young local poets about the city's financial crisis as detailed in the organization's previous investigation, "Who Took Down Stockton?" The journalists involved weren't immediately sure whether the teens would even be interested in the financial facts behind what the CIR called the "bad deals that brought this city to its knees."
But Susanne Reber, the CIR's director of digital media, says the youth surprised them with how deeply they engaged with the complicated subject matter.
"They could have tuned out and said, 'Well, this is boring,'" she says. "But they didn't. And that's what's so stunning."
Off/Page's inaugural fellow, Joshua Merchant, a 22-year-old poet from Oakland, Calif., was also present, helping to lead the workshops with Vadi and CIR's investigative reporters. Merchant says that the youth poets "were already bothered by a lot of what was happening in their community, because they live it first hand," but weren't necessarily familiar with the reasons behind the financial collapse. Once the facts were provided, he discovered, they were awestruck and "angry and wanted to do something."
Out of that experience came Good Kid, Broken City.
'Whispers From the Field'
One of the first young poets to utilize the Off/Page project's unique combination of old-school investigative journalism and modern storytelling tools is Monica Mendoza, a 19-year-old from Oakland. She collaborated with the CIR on a spoken word poem, "Whispers From the Field," which she wrote after being inspired and informed by "Rape in the Fields," a year-long CIR investigation into the sexual abuse allegations levied by predominantly immigrant farm workers against their overseers.
After working closely with the journalists involved to make sure the poem was both accurate editorially and creatively true to Mendoza's vision, Off/Page tapped Jamie DeWolf, a cinematographer who turned their work into the short film embedded above.
For young but experienced storytellers like Mendoza and Merchant, and for those not yet connected with a group of poets in their community, Off/Page is a digital touchstone, bringing what has previously been a primarily in-person experience on the theater stage to the worldwide public square created by digital media.
"To show them that at any moment, at any time, their voice can be represented: That's the key thing," Vadi says. "Telling young people that their voices matter, that their voices have the potential to create social change."
Image: Off/Page Project